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Brain-controlled robot will help patients with severe muscle paralysis due to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

In a new research project, signals from the brain are decoded by a computer and used to control a robotic arm and glove. The project aims to enable patients with severe muscle paralysis (ALS) to look after themselves for longer without help. Later, the aim is to transfer the method to other patients suffering from paralysis.

Medical Doctor, Associate Professor Jakob Udby Blicher

The severe neuromuscular disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) affects 120 Danes every year. The disease has great personal and societal costs, as half of the patients are either dead or in need of massive care within a few years of being diagnosed.

Due to the muscle loss, patients lose the ability to move, but by utilising new technology it is now possible to decode the intention to move an arm or a leg by reading the signals from the brain through electrodes on the skin which is known as EEG.

The goal of the research project is to exploit these signals to control a robot arm and glove once the disease has reached such an advanced stage that the patient becomes dependent on help from family members or care staff. The project is made possible by a donation of DKK 8 million from Innovation Fund Denmark.


From cap to mouth

The robot arm will initially help patients to eat. It will therefore be mounted on a wheelchair or a normal chair that the patient sits in. From here, the patient controls the robot arm by means of a cap that he or she has on. This cap contains electrodes that capture signals from the brain.

"We want the electrodes to be able to read thoughts, so we can decode that when the person wishes to move an arm, the robot arm moves. We need to develop an adaptable algorithm, so that it changes as the patient learns something new. For example, the algorithm has to be able to detect the intention to raise a glass and bring it up to the mouth of the person, even though the person is at the same time sitting and talking," says Jakob Blicher. He is associate professor at the Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience under Aarhus University:

"At the same time, we would like to see whether our algorithm can adapt itself as the patients' ALS worsens. We need to find out how many times we need to capture the patients' intentions before patients can get the robot arm to carry out these tasks with certainty each time. We will therefore measure the intentions of the patients in the early stage of ALS. In this way, our algorithm will be trained again and again, and it will receive a great deal of information to work with. When patients become less able to use their arm, our algorithm should be able to activate the robotic arm to do the job it needs to do," says Jakob Blicher.


Researchers to visit patients at home


During the four-year project period, the technology will be adapted and developed in collaboration with the participating ALS patients. The patients will be visited by the researchers in their own home, so that the technology can be adapted to the individual patient's needs as the disease worsens.

If the project is successful, the technology could be used on several other patient groups, such as patients with various forms of paralysis.

The project is a collaboration between research groups at Aarhus University, Aarhus University Hospital, Aalborg University, the Swedish company Bioservo Technologies and The Danish Rehabilitation Center for Neuromuscular Diseases (RCFM).

The project's social relevance

The project’s initial focus is the muscular dystrophy condition ALS, which is characterised by patients quickly deteriorating, while maintaining their mental capacity.

The hope is that the individual ALS patient will become less dependent on daily help and in this way improve his or her quality of life.

At the same time, society will be able to save money on care personnel. ALS is currently the most cost-intensive neurological disease when measured per patient.

The researchers hope that the project can also come to help people with different types of muscle weakness or paralysis. For example, the approx. 3,000 people with spinal cord injuries found in Denmark, according to The Danish Spinal Cord Injuries Association.



Medical Doctor, Associate Professor Jakob Udby Blicher

Aarhus University, Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience
Mobile: (+ 45) 2810 5674
Email: jbli@cfin.au.dk